A version of this story ran in the March 2013 issue.
In the waning days of the 20th century, two things were considered gospel among in-the-know Austinites: Lance Armstrong, fresh off his first Tour de France victory in 1999, was the greatest athlete Texas had ever produced, and The Gourds were never, ever going to play “Gin & Juice” again. As it turns out, the case for Armstrong’s supremacy has been torpedoed by illicit juicing, and The Gourds have embraced the potentially tiresome novelty of “Gin & Juice” as the anchor—“Free Bird”-style—of mid-set medleys. Fans of both brands have learned it’s best never to say never.
The Gourds have recorded 10 albums of propulsive Americana since Kevin Russell formed the band with Jimmy Smith, Claude Bernard and Charlie Llewellin in 1994, but it was the Napster-era viral success of “Gin & Juice” that introduced Russell’s fierce East Texas drawl to the band’s broadest audience. So it’s little surprise that All The Labor, a new documentary about The Gourds, delves into the strange story of how a fledgling Austin band hit the virtual big-time via the file-sharing of a larkish cover song.
All The Labor, produced by High Plains Films of Missoula, Montana, and directed by Doug Hawes-Davis, will premiere at Austin’s SXSW conference in March. Hawes-Davis has built a reputation on documentaries about wildlife management in the American West, and a filmography heavy on horses, bison, coyotes and prairie dogs may have accustomed him to weird and wooly subject matter. But All The Labor—named for a track on The Gourds’ 2000 album Dem’s Good Beeble—represents the filmmaker’s first attempt at rockumentary. It tracks the band over a 10-year period, from an odd appearance on the Austin Fox affiliate in preparation for a 2001 SXSW showcase to the recording of 2011’s Old Mad Joy album and ensuing tour.
As the “Gin & Juice” diversion suggests, The Gourds defy easy categorization. Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith divide songwriting responsibilities, with Russell providing alt-country stomp and holler and not a little Gulf Coast soul (he grew up in Beaumont), while quasi-reformed punk surrealist Smith tends toward rocking tales of weird America, old and new. Rounding out the current lineup are longtime drummer Keith Langford, triple-threat Claude Bernard (accordion, guitar and keyboards) and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston, son of Dallas music figure “Dollar” Bill Johnston and younger brother of wayward folkie Michelle Shocked.
The Gourds traveled 2,000 miles to record Old Mad Joy at the late Levon Helm’s Woodstock, New York studio under the direction of former Bob Dylan sideman-turned-producer Larry Campbell. All The Labor portrays the band tightly focused on the album, its first for the Vanguard label, providing a sharp contrast to footage of the band at home in Austin with families and friends. For all their shambolic drinking, smoking, farting, burping and joking—this is a warts-and-all portrayal—the guys are a disciplined unit at work.
Though well regarded, Old Mad Joy didn’t exactly set the charts on fire. But it does show The Gourds to be keepers of a musical flame that connects giants like Helm and Doug Sahm (who invited the band to back him for a live recording in 1998) with latter-day jangle-folk rockers like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers. They’re shown in the film as they come across in person: authentic, and not particularly concerned with the vagaries of fame. Given the fakers and takers Austin has produced over the years, that’s a labor deserving more than a little love.
Freelance writer Dan Oko, formerly of Austin, now gets his swamp boogie on in Houston, where he’s a contributing editor to Houston magazine. His work has also appeared in Garden & Gun, Dwell, and Texas Highways. All The Labor premieres during SXSW at 7 pm on Wednesday, March 13, at the Zach Theatre’s Topfer Theatre.